Concluding Remarks: C. I. Lewis’s Legacy
How successful is Lewis’s argumentation? My primary aim has not been to directly address this issue but instead to restore an appropriate understanding of the main aims and claims of conceptual pragmatism as they are exposed and argued in M WO. This interpretation involves a reassessment of conceptual pragmatism in that I attempt to convey the philosophical force and relevance of some of C. I. Lewis’s major insights and contributions as they are at work in his treatment of the problem of the world order. My methodology has been to locate Lewis’s conceptual pragmatism in the history of philosophy and to take his treatment of the problem of the world order as the best way to approach his distinctive brand of pragmatism. In the end, it must be acknowledged that Lewis’s conceptual pragmatism is Janus-faced in that it bridges different philosophical traditions and eras. One reason why Lewis is such a transitional figure is his heightened sense of the problems which motivate traditional conceptions of philosophy. Numerous criticisms have been addressed to him and have contributed to the apparent and relative eclipse of his pragmatism. However, many of his most perceptive critics have inherited crucial insights from him. Their delving into Lewis’s work has enabled them to see exactly where and why Lewis himself failed and how to retain some of Lewis’s most precious contributions. Let me close with an example.
Lewis’s conceptual pragmatism has often been interpreted as a version of the traditional theory of meaning. Not only does Lewis apparently fall into the trap of historical incommensurability by holding that the contradictory relation between two successive categorial framework is “verbal only" because of the meaning-changes involved (1926,253; 1929,268),62 but he also seems to explicitly endorse the two assumptions of the traditional theory of meaning identified by Putnam: knowing the meaning of a term is just a matter of being in a certain psychological state and the meaning of a term determines its extension.63 However, a closer look at MWO convincingly suggests that some of Lewis’s insights adumbrated two cardinal tenets of semantic externalism.64 First, one of the main lessons of semantic externalism in its Putnamian version is that the world -our social and natural environment - contributes to our thought’s having a grip on the world. In a nutshell, thought - at least, worldly thought - is “world-involving.” Lewis claims that some general and natural features of the world are presupposed by our a priori principles and our categories. That such facts are presupposed means that the world contributes to the possibility of empirical epistemic claims being evaluated in terms of truth or falsity by conditioning the application of our a priori principles to the experience. Second, another tenet of Putnam’s externalism is that, in a central range of cases, reference is transtheoretical, that is, stable or invariant across theory changes. This point, which is part of Putnam’s case against both logical positivism and partisans of incommensurability, is hinted at by Lewis:
The use of any substantive phrase or term ordinarily undergoes a process of development, both in the history of society and in the history of any individual who uses it. Usually, though not always, the denotation of a term used to remain unchanged throughout this process; we apply it to the same class of objects, but our realization of what is essential to these things reflects a process of learning.
This distinction of denotation from meaning makes it possible, in central cases, to avoid falling into the predicament of referential incommensurability between alternative conceptual frameworks65 and to account for a notion of scientific progress. This second insight is consistent with the first since this dissociation is a departure from the idea (in its traditional vein) that the meaning of a term determines its extension, that is, a departure from the idea that the world contributes only to fixing the extension of our concepts but not their content.